Brad Bowling
December 1, 2006
Photos By: Jerry Heasley

The S-281 received the full Racecraft suspension, large 245/40-18 BFGoodrich tires on 18-inch, five-spoke wheels, a short-throw shifter, white-face gauge treatment, the complete Saleen lower body kit and a rear wing unique to the model. Seats were stock Mustang GT units, and the fender badge was Ford's "GT/4.6L" piece. Extra-cost upgrades included magnesium 18-inch wheels ($2,500), 13-inch front brakes ($2,188), a 3.55:1 rear axle gear ($812), and a Speedster package for convertibles that included a hard tonneau cover and two-point chassis stiffener ($2,315).

Even though Saleen had offered superchargers on its earlier models, federal standards had tightened the loopholes that once made those blown engines possible. Production S-281s would not be offered with any type of supercharger until 1999, when Saleen opened its own in-house research and development lab. It was not widely advertised, but S-281 buyers looking for extra horsepower could have Saleen build their cars from SVT Cobras, which came that year with 305-horsepower DOHC versions of the 4.6. S-281 Cobra coupes sold for $38,900; convertibles were $41,000.

Total S-281 production in that first year reached 438 units, which included 30 convertibles Saleen built for Budget Rent A Car.

Kevin Doolittle, a landscaper from Cantonment, Florida, had been dreaming of owning a Saleen for many years when his wife Carmel saw a Crystal White '96 convertible sitting on a local used car dealer lot.

"I had never really wanted a convertible," Kevin said, "but the fact that it was a Saleen - and one of only 234 S-281 convertibles - got my attention."

Having had a '92 5.0-liter LX, Kevin was eager to get another Mustang. The Doolittles bought the S-281, Saleen serial number 96-0165, a few days after Christmas in 1999. With the stock GT's five-speed T-45 manual transmission and 3.55:1 rear gears, the couple found the convertible peppy enough to enjoy without expensive engine mods, but they did decide to give it a fresh look by way of the paint and body shop.

"We shaved the door handles and the antenna," Kevin remembered. "We removed the badges. Carmel and I wanted it to be a really smooth body when we were done, something that would really stand out when it went down the road."

By 'we,' Kevin means California Customs which, despite what its name might suggest, is located in Pensacola, Florida. R.J. Henson and Ralph and Tina Gill worked with Kevin on the bodywork and extensive painting chores. They laid down layers of non-pigment white, then applied custom violet and candy blue flames for a stunning, almost animated, effect.

One night during the painting process, while the car sat outside the garage, some incompetent crooks broke the rear quarter window and attempted to gain entry into the convertible. Because the outside handles had been shaved, they were unable to open the door after lifting the lock and left the car with only minor injuries.

"They weren't very smart criminals," Kevin says. "The car was actually on blocks, with its Saleen wheels just sitting against the rotors and the lugs hand-tightened. Those wheels and Nitto 555s would be worth more than whatever stereo equipment they thought they were going to get."

After that bit of excitement, the Doolittles and Johnson's Trim Shop breathed some life into the interior by complementing the fire outside with black custom leather seats wearing blue inserts. The inside door panels were given the same color-matching treatment, as was the shift knob. Blue neon lighting was placed beneath the undercarriage, and it is activated by a switch in the cigarette lighter.

Ken's Car Tunes made sure entertainment upgrades were plentiful, including an Alpine four-channel MRV-T420 amp, two-channel MRV-F340 amp, CDA-9835 head unit, a pair of 12-inch S-type woofers and a custom fiberglass trunk enclosure.